Algy Cluff is the longest-serving oilman in the North Sea. He was one of the first to drill for oil there, in 1972, and at the last government handout of drilling licences, two years ago, there he was again, making a handsome gas discovery.
Now 76, he’s also the least likely oilman you can imagine. Tall, rangy, dressed in Savile Row pinstripes; he is no J.R. Ewing. His diffident, patrician voice is so gentle that I have to turn my tape recorder up to transcribe this interview.
Cluff’s Who’s Who entry lists membership of 11 clubs. But there is no clubman stuffiness about him. He’s full of wonderful anecdotes, many of them involving The Spectator, which he owned from 1981 to 1985, before he became chairman for 20 years. Cluff largely tells stories against himself, such as the time he wrote a memorandum to the then editor, Alexander Chancellor, proposing more coverage of the Far East. ‘He printed the memorandum as if it were a letter from a reader,’ says Cluff. ‘I realised I had met my match.’
If John Aspinall, the gaming tycoon, had had his way, Cluff would never have bought The Spectator in the first place. One day in 1980, Cluff was lunching with Henry Keswick, then The Spectator’s owner, at Aspinall’s gaming club off Sloane Street. Aspinall, sitting at another table, guessing they were discussing The Spectator, shouted across the room, ‘Don’t sell it to him, Henry. He’s too left-wing.’
But he was commercially minded enough to bring about the magazine’s recovery. As editor, Alexander Chancellor had already transformed its tone and layout. Cluff replaced him with Charles Moore, then only 27, who proceeded to double sales. Circulation had leapt 45 per cent, to 23,185, by the time Cluff sold the magazine in 1985. His proprietorship confirmed The Spectator as Britain’s foremost political weekly.
Cluff was also an old friend of Margaret Thatcher. He first met her when she gave a Downing Street dinner for leading oilmen. ‘The theme of the evening was us all whingeing,’ says Cluff. ‘I was sitting on her left and she turned round and said, “What? You’re not getting enough money out of the North Sea? I’m not getting enough money out of the North Sea!”
‘I thought that was the end of a beautiful friendship. But I came as close as I can to anyone without a sense of humour. My sole assessment of the value of a friend is the capacity for laughter. But hers was zero.’
One New Year’s Eve, shortly after Denis Thatcher died, he had Lady Thatcher to dinner at his Westminster house. ‘Mrs T. turned her back on my 92-year-old mother and my wife, and talked to me for the whole evening,’ he recalls. ‘Absolute agony. She thought women couldn’t have a thing to say of any importance at all.’
A few years later, as Lady Thatcher grew frail, Algy again sat next to her, at a Kent lunch party.
‘Assuming she was semi-gaga, I started an idiotic conversation along the lines of “The sun is yellow, the sky is blue”,’ he says, ‘to which she responded, witheringly, “My problem, Algy, is deafness, not dementia!” ’
Mrs Thatcher also opened Cluff’s Zimbabwe goldmine, alongside Robert Mugabe. All went swimmingly at the opening ceremony, until the drinks afterwards. As the marquee fell silent at the Thatchers’ entrance, Denis, gin and tonic in hand, was overheard bellowing to Cluff, ‘Absolutely useless, these chaps, I assume?’
Still, Mugabe let Cluff negotiate the mine’s financing with Dr Kombo Moyana, then governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank. ‘At Moyana’s weekly meeting with Mugabe, the first question from Mugabe was invariably, “How many white men have you killed today, Governor?”’
Cluff had some respect for Mugabe in the early years of his rule. In 1994, Mugabe flew to Cluff’s house in Scotland to meet African investors. Cluff laid on a Gordon Highlanders piper to greet him. As he watched the piper, Mugabe turned to Cluff’s wife Blondel, who is of Anguillan parentage, and said, ‘Unless I am mistaken, this gentleman has an ostrich feather on his head? Under his arm he is squeezing the gut of a dead animal? And he is wearing a skirt? And they call us primitive!’
Mugabe eventually turned on Cluff over a mining deal. At a meeting in Zimbabwe’s State House, a colleague of Cluff’s thanked Mugabe for allowing them a courtesy visit. ‘Discourtesy visit!’ Mugabe shot back, before despatching Cluff into an anteroom, guarded by a man bristling with hand grenades and machine guns. Cluff raced out of State House, only to remember he had sent his car away.
‘I walked the two miles back to Harare, every step accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling in the small of my back that a shot was about to ring out,’ he says.
The only son of a Cheshire businessman, Cluff has roamed the world since leaving Stowe in the late 1950s. An officer in the Grenadier Guards, he served in Africa, Cyprus and Malaysia. After a spell in New York, writing speeches for John Lindsay, Republican mayor of the city from 1966 to 1973, he returned to London. There, he spotted a government advert in the paper offering North Sea oil licences. Still today the North Sea excites him, despite the oil slump.
‘The North Sea has a great future,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot more oil to be found and there’s certainly a huge amount of gas yet to be found.’
Cluff is also certain British business will thrive outside Europe. He’s fed up of the intransigence of the EU and its supporters. ‘The whole thing was done in a high-minded, patronising way, where you’re judged to be half-witted if you asked any questions about Europe over the past 30 or 40 years,’ he says. ‘That arrogant way of proceeding usually ends in tears and is indeed doing so. We are so fortunate living on an island. They are jealous of our good fortune, and they’re stripping us one by one of those advantages. We should regroup as an island nation and trade with anyone.’
On this resounding note, Cluff rounds off the interview, after a long day raising money for more buccaneering adventures in the North Sea. Brexit or no Brexit, Britain’s longest-serving oilman must keep drilling away.
Algy Cluff’s Get On With It: A Memoir is published on 3 May.
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